THE MAN, NOT THE METHOD
Hermite almost lost his life in the French Revolution -
although the last head had fallen nearly a quarter of a century
before he was born. His paternal grandfather was ruined by the
Commune and died in prison; his "grandfather's brother went to
the guillotine. Hermite's father escaped owing to his youth.
If Hermite's mathematical ability was inherited, it probably
came from the side of the father, who had studied engineering.
Finding engineering uncongenial, Hermite senior gave it up,
and after an equally distasteful start in the salt industry, finally
settled down in business as a cloth merchant. This resting place
was no doubt chosen by the rolling stone because he had mar-
ried his employer's daughter, Madeleine Lalleinand, a domi-
neering woman who wore the breeches in her family and ran
everything from the business to her husband. She succeeded in
building both up to a state of solid bourgeois prosperity.
Charles was the sixth of seven children - five sons and two
daughters. He was born with a deformity of the right leg which
rendered him lame for life - possibly a disguised blessing, as it
effectively barred him from any career even remotely connected
with the army - and he had to get about with a cane. His defor-
mity never affected the uniform sweetness of his disposition.
Hermit e's earliest education was received from his parents.
As the business continued to prosper} the family moved from
Dieuze to Nancy when Hermite was six. Presently the growing
demands of the business absorbed all the time of the parents
and Hermite was sent as a boarder to the lycee at Nancy. This
school proving unsatisfactory the prosperous parents decided
to give Charles the best and packed him off to Paris. There he
studied for a short time at the Lycee Henri IV, moving on at
the age of eighteen (1840) to the more famous (or iiiiamous)
Louis-le-Grand - the 'Alma' Mater of the wretched Galois - to
prepare for the Polytechnique.
For a while it looked as if Hennite was to repeat the disaster
of his untamable predecessor at Louis-le-Grand. He had the
same dislike for rhetoric and the same indifference to the ele-
mentary mathematics of the classroom. But the competent
lectures on physics fascinated him and won his cordial co-opera-
tion in the bilateral process of acquiring an education. Later on,